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Features / May 12, 2016

7 Must-See Projects at the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival

Our top choices for the Toronto-wide, month-long photo fest.

The Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival turns 20 this year. Exhibitions, public installations and more run across Toronto to the end of the month, in some cases with extended runs through late spring and summer. Here, our editors’ picks.

“10 Blankets” by Jeff Bierk in collaboration with “Jimmy” James Evans and Carl Lance Bonnici
To May 31 at various locations

Each May, I find myself wondering why I care about Contact. There’s a critical mass to the omnibus festival—this year with works by 1,500 national and international artists—that puts photography front and centre in the public eye. Contact is a promotional juggernaut. But at the same time, is it too much of a good thing? Amid all of that visual noise, for me the exhibitions that count are the ones that work outside of the frame. Among the 20 featured public installations for this year’s Contact is Jeff Bierk’s 10 Blankets project. Developed out of an ongoing collaboration with a group of homeless men and women—all regular visitors to the “Back 40” (an empty lot near Bierk’s Annex apartment)—the project features images of these friends sleeping or lying down that are then printed on 10 fleece blankets. Like its subjects, the project’s installation is also transient and roaming, with the photo-printed blankets distributed for use throughout the Annex and around Queen East and Church streets. It’s complex work that not only launches charged questions about the state of disenfranchisement in the city, but also challenges the perceived value of photography, the orthodoxies of production and display, and how images that are equally poignant and sublime can travel in meaningful and unexpected ways. As Bierk puts it: “My work is in resistance to two things: one is the dominant society that doesn’t want to recognize my friends or their beauty as they pass them on the street. And the other is the media industrial complex that wants to profit from tragic story telling.”—Bryne McLaughlin, senior editor

“Cutline: The Photography Archives of the Globe and Mail”
To June 26 at 425 Wellington Street West

If you’re a person who spent your Grade Two lunch breaks reading the Winnipeg Free Press, as I did, an exhibition of vintage Canadian press photographs is a pretty easy sell.

And yet, I enjoyed “Cutline” even more than the power of personal nostalgia might suggest. A large part of its success has to do with its setting—a dramatic, cavernous space, accessed via a nondescript back-alley entranceway, that used to house the Globe and Mail’s printing presses. Smart curation (including a “Canadian version” of Robert Frank’s The Americans and a projection of Arthur Lipsett’s media-critical 1961 NFB film Very Nice, Very Nice) also appeals.

Also illuminating is the exhibition’s focus on how photographs were summarized via cutline text like “Adamson: we are not a hippie paper” and, similarly, how they were cropped and edited using red grease pencil; these scarlet lines and arrows evoke how media (social-, legacy- or otherwise) continue to shape and reshape (or, in a photo editor’s parlance, “improve” or “correct”) our views of the world, for better or for worse.—Leah Sandals, managing editor, online

“Outsiders: American Photography and Film, 1950s – 1980s”
To May 29 at the Art Gallery of Ontario

Standing in front of a wall of black-and-white Garry Winogrand photographs, an older woman says to her friend, “Where were you in ’62?” “Dancing in a dress made of lime-green polyester with a faux-leather panel on the back,” she replies. “It was so short that I couldn’t bend over without showing off my ass. But that’s back when my knees worked, of course.”

For those of us who weren’t there to shimmy and rattle society through decades of social transformation, but equally for those who were and lived to tell the tale, “Outsiders” offers a critical look at how a group of photographers and filmmakers of the time (Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin, Shirley Clarke, Gordon Parks, Danny Lyon, Marie Menken, Alfred Leslie, Kenneth Anger, Robert Frank and the named and unnamed photographers of Casa Susanna) documented their milieus, which were often populated by eccentrics, the marginalized, or, as Arbus called them, “singular people” who proved that “Every Difference is a Likeness too.”—Rosie Prata, managing editor

“The Temptation of Saint Anthony” by Vikky Alexander
Opens May 13 at Cooper Cole

I knew vaguely of Vikky Alexander before I saw her 1981 work Obsession—a sequence of blown-up, black-and-yellow images of model Christy Brinkley—at the Vancouver Art Gallery’s “MashUp” show. The more I discover about Alexander, the more I’m intrigued. In addition to the work at the VAG, which more strictly resembles the image-appropriating “Pictures Generation” New York scene to which she was attached in the 1980s, she has made sculptures, installations and more, all sleek, smart and self-deconstructing. Cooper Cole’s Contact show offers a chance to see more from the period of Obsession: borrowed, retooled and re-presented images from fashion spreads, which we now see as vintage. What if Alexander, not Richard Prince, had become the artstar famed for presenting large-scale, borrowed, male-gaze-y, consumerist images of women? What if, moreover, Alexander had become canonized as a Vancouver photoconceptualist alongside all those dudes? There is, I might add, some time to correct this.—David Balzer, editor-in-chief

“Holding Still // Holding Together” by Annie MacDonell
To August 21 at Ryerson Image Centre

I’ve seen two artists recreate photographs with dancers in the past month. The first was artist was Jon Sasaki, who choreographed a recreation of vintage dance-marathon photographs, where dancers slump in exhaustion barely inches off the floor. It was funny and charming, and while Annie MacDonell’s “Holding Still // Holding Together” takes a similar tack to Sasaki’s piece, her tenor is more poetic and troubling. With choreographer Ame Henderson, MacDonell recreates photographs of passive protesters being lifted and shifted by police. It’s a show that lays the optics of governmental control bare, but also turns this reflexivity on itself, asking what it means to represent these bodies, stripped of their context.—Caoimhe Morgan-Feir, associate editor

Corin Sworn
To May 29 at Oakville Galleries

Corin Sworn’s first museum exhibition in Ontario seems an unlikely candidate to represent a photography festival. Images are subsumed into a language of things, their lexical capacity overwhelmed by the material world. A box of found 35-mm slides provides the basis for a little theatre of objects as the anonymous photographer’s daily life is woven into the artist’s elliptical spoken narrative. Adjacent rooms are lined with hand-dyed monochromes, their pigments sourced from plants that also appear in the forms of dried specimens and digitally altered photographs. Themes of contingency and flux reappear as the diminutive silk works respond to shifting daylight.—Nicholas Brown, contributing editor

Alec Soth, “Hypnagogia”
From May 6 to June 25 at Arsenal Gallery

The imaginative logic of dreams is the narrative thread that connects individual works of American photographer Alec Soth in “Hypnagogia” at Arsenal Gallery. Building a site-specific installation of more than 30 photographic works from the past 10 years of his practice, Soth and his works happily lurk in the middle ground between humorous documentary and strange fiction. It is Soth’s use of large-format photography, with its time-consuming and laborious set-up, that builds the awkward tension seen in images he shot during journeys along the Mississippi River, through the country of Georgia, and in Tokyo. For Contact, these locales collide in a curiously disparate yet somehow tied-together way, as if the artist is remembering a dream at the moment of waking.—Benjamin Hunter, web intern